Opera Gazet, 20 May 2022
|by David Meadows
Wagner: Lohengrin, Melbourne, ab 14. Mai 2022
Lohengrin in Melbourne
“The show was pure panem et circenses – scenery porn more reliant upon empty spectacle than any emotional or human insight.”
As a director of opera myself, I am always perplexed by the assertion of
fellow opera fans – on and off stage – who insist that opera is “all about
the singing.” It is not. Credible staging and a fully rehearsed dramatic
realization are just as important. Why else the expense and bother of sets
and costumes, lighting and scenic conceits, weeks of blocking rehearsals,
the pretense at character and drama, the attempted representation of some
kind of reality, and a text that is structurally interchangeable with that
of a spoken play? Why have the art-form at all, frankly, if we’re ignoring
that opera was invented under the Medicis and the Camerata out of dramatic,
rather than musical necessity, with music originally interpolated to support
drama, text, and emotional landscape and not the other way around?
Thus, when I come out of the show and think to myself, “Nice music making,
shame about the production”, I can’t pretend to be anything other than
supremely annoyed at having attended nothing more than a concert in costume.
Whether the staging is traditional or radical, libretto-faithful or
bastardised by egomania, I feel slapped across the face if the human drama
is cheated of its due. I am, of course, happy that the singing and the
playing has been of such an exceptionally high order (I wouldn’t be much of
an opera fan if I wasn’t), but if half of the equation is MIA, then that’s a
shortfall of epic proportions. Sadly, it happens to be a shortfall that
companies and intendants around the world not only tolerate, but apparently
Which brings us to Opera Australia’s current
production of Lohengrin. Under the baton of Opera Australia’s Head of Music,
Tahu Matheson, Wagner’s fairytale romantic drama (here more Grimm than
Disney, and grim indeed) was, musically speaking, gorgeous, lush, and
sweeping, with an almost flawless musical execution.
star turn in the title role was as polished as you’d expect from the most
popular tenor in the world enjoying the very height of his success. He was
never anything less than fully present, committed, in thrilling voice, and
taking proceedings perfectly seriously. There was a reliance on mezzavoce
that bordered on indulgent, but it was never less than magnificently and
stylishly delivered. His realization of the show’s hit solo “In fernem Land”
was as ravishing as any version I’ve heard, even if the production had no
idea what it was doing to serve it.
American soprano Emily Magee sang
admirably, but she possesses a vocal maturity that, sadly, belies Elsa’s
feckless naïveté. The absenteeism of the production’s three directors didn’t
help, and the character came across as perfunctory and “as read”.
It’s not often that Telramund is sung so lyrically, but Melbourne baritone
Simon Meadows (no relation) managed such finesse within this most vocally
demanding of roles that he came dangerously close to stealing the entire
show. That he retained the vocal power and menace of this iconic villain,
and was so dramatically on point, was genuinely thrilling to watch. A
As Ortrud, his partner in life, crime, and
awkward onstage groping, French-Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Gabouri was
vocally outstanding – as good as it gets, frankly. And if she fell short in
her dramatic realization, it’s as much to do with the broad strokes implicit
within the character itself than anything else.
Wagnerian Warwick Fyfe was, unsurprisingly, vocally commanding as the
Herald. Dramatically, he evoked a Greek chorus, strongly redolent of scribe
characters like Shakespeare’s Horatio. Daniel Sumegi overcame a woolly vocal
start to emerge as a commanding and dramatically understated King Heinrich.
Dancer Reuben James Baron and child actor Aidan Synan were both, in their
own distinct ways, as per the production’s curious demands, highly effective
Orchestra Victoria played magnificently, and the
Opera Australia chorus emerged as the evening’s biggest stars, singing
gloriously despite an increasingly intolerable stream of pointless and
abstract indulgences in the staging.
Ah yes… the staging.
Whatever opera Olivier Py was directing, it certainly wasn’t Wagner’s
Lohengrin. Set designer Pierre-André Weitz and lighting designers Bertrand
Killy & John Rayment provided some delightful theatrical pageantry in an
attempt to distract us from the shortcomings of Py and his rehearsal
directors Shane Placentino and Kate Gaul, but it was insufficient to
overcome the vast emotional void at the center of the drama.
this show, neither Py, Placentino, nor Gaul can direct actors. The show was
pure panem et circenses – scenery porn more reliant upon empty spectacle
than any emotional or human insight. The blocking was stilted and
ham-fisted, with, for instance, the opera’s most complicated emotional and
dramatic moment – when Elsa finally buckles to peer pressure and harangues
her new husband for his name and lineage – going for absolutely nothing; two
singers at sea, wandering aimlessly to and fro on a fancy set, but with zero
guidance through the textual, emotional, or spatial dynamics of the scene or
what it means across a narrative landscape.
I don’t read directors’
program notes (as far as I’m concerned, if a director can’t communicate
their ideas entirely from the stage, then the stage is not their medium), so
I have no idea what Py’s intentions were with his depressingly ubiquitous
regietheater indulgences, and as far as I could tell as I mingled after the
show, neither did anyone else. Most of them had given up generally on
stagings containing any actual human meaning and were content to praise the
musical performances. Fair enough, too, I suppose, given the prevailing
I, however, would like our companies to work
harder. And smarter.
Wish me luck.